24 May 2011

Fracking, groundwater and markets

RH wrote me with this observation in reference to The End of Abundance:
And with environmental damage not only to our surface water sources, but more troubling still, to our groundwater sources, we have a shrinking "pie" of clean water. I've just received an email from a friend of mine who is a professor at a college in central Pennsylvania, and he has been telling me of the heart-breaking and quasi-permanent damage being done to the aquifers there by the notorious "fracking" method of extracting natural gas. When I worked as a scientist for an environmental consulting firm in New Jersey - back in the mid-1980's - the cost of cleaning up contaminated groundwater typically was roughly 2-3 orders of magnitude higher than cleaning up a comparable toxics release into the soil matrix. So a spill that effected only the soil might cost $10,000 to clean up, but if it had gotten into the groundwater, the clean-up cost likely would be closer to $1 to $10 million. Intentionally injecting highly toxic chemicals into the groundwater is something that just doesn't make sense in today's world; yet despite all of our extremely advanced scientific knowledge, in so many places, people seem to be taking our fresh water supplies for granted.
I replied with this:
Short answer is YES, b/c the current system of abuses originates in bureaucratic processes where, at a minimum, someone decides how much pollution you, the landowner, will get.

A market would allow people to opt out OR be paid "enough" to take the pollution. I know that can be mishandled, but the bureaucratic system (or ZERO fracking) is worse...
Please comment. I am writing an op/ed on this issue soon and need to hear more pros and cons.


  1. This is an interesting issue. Let's call it the social construction of pollution. If frackers are tapping very deep confined aquifers that are not even "perched aquifers" but gas and water that is so deep that it does not get into the groundwater table but they use methods that are contaminating the water, is there a harmed party? If no harmed party but a harmed environment, what harm is there that is greater than the pockets of oil and gas that already co-exists with the water? Pollution has a social location. Frackers don't see harm; academics do. Under what legal concept this could be pursued I have no idea. Also are all frackers using the same methods or chemicals? Could we end up with regulating frackers for something that causes no real harm to the environment?

    The only comparison I can think of is perchlorate regulation where there never has been any study showing that removing of infinitesimal amounts of perchlorate results in improved health or fewer cases of mental retardation or educational deficit children. We are spending billions to clean up tiny levels of a substance with no demonstrable health improvements.

    I'm not writing here about very high pockets of perchlorate. But even with high amounts of perchlorate there was a case a few years ago in Tarzana, California where a perchlorate hot spot with levels in the 1000's ppb's was found. The state called an emergency and mobilized earth movers and drillers to eradicate the hot spot which was near the ground surface. A heavy rain occurred before they could remove the perchlorate. They could find NO perchlorate because the rain diluted it to non-trace levels. A developer that owned the land and was building houses nearby was being sued but the case had to be dropped. The solution to pollution is dilution.

    The problem with perchlorate is that it is often not found near the ground surface but is trapped underground and concentrated at relatively higher levels in a groundwater basin. Paraphrasing Paracelsus, pollution is in the dosage and high dosage is caused by trapping or confining any substance (smog is caused by trapped air in urban air basins but is more easily diluted in windy deserts or oceans.

  2. no, no, no. pay me to destroy my water? free market solutions never work because they're hinged on profit. I live in Colorado - lots of fracking going on here, lots of people have lost their wells. Some folks on the Western Slope can set the water that comes out of their faucet on fire!

  3. What would Elinor Ostrom have to say about this?

    I'm against privatizing water in any place that has (or is moving toward) significant reliance on a non-market (or non-cash) economy. I also have problems with it when the income/wealth inequality.

    Where I live (Mohave desert) most wells are unregulated. Small and large landholders alike bristle against monitoring (partly because monitoring sometimes leads to charges for water delivery/monitoring even when the landholder installed all of the infrastructure themselves). I empathize with the small well people, even though as a scientist I would rather have a more complete data set! However, I see a less firm basis for the larger commercial water users to object. They have the resources to stand up for their rights -- small landholders often do not.

  4. A petroleum engineer would actually know the answer, but I suspect that fracking a well requires a pretty small amount of water. If you use a well depth of 10,000 feet (deeper than most NG wells) and a casing diameter of 10 inches, the volume of the entire stack (h*r-squared*pi) is 65,000 cubic feet, equivalent to 8,750 gallons. Frac fluids are forced into the reservoir rock around the perforated part of the well casing, and nowhere else. (It would be a waste of expensive fluids, the energy to pump them, and damned dangerous to boot to do otherwise.) The operator will keep banging away until various indicators tell him the frac job was successful. However, since it is a hydraulic system, the water is not going anywhere at first. Once it starts to leave the well bore and enter the reservoir rock, the job is complete. Seems to me it would make no sense to continue pumping a lot of water down the hole at that point, as all the energy expended would be dissipated over a large area. If the operator wants to disperse propping agents such as walnut shells or glass beads into the reservoir, he may pump some additional fluid in to disperse these things, but probably not a huge amount. My (uneducated) guess is that 10-20,000 gallons of water (a fraction of an acre foot) would be a very generous estimate of the amount of water needed for a frac job.
    The environmental problems of badly completed wells, communication between potable aquifers and non-potable ones, migration of frac fluids into surface waters, and the like are very serious ones. There are engineering and regulatory solutions which ought to be able to minimize these risks, and do so in places like California.

  5. @maggie -- the WHOLE point is that you can refuse to sell. No need to take the $ :)

    @clareka -- Lin would probably say that existing institutions do not appear to be up to the task :) "unregulated" wells are more of a problem b/c there's nothing to keep your neighbor from fracking (or an oil firm from buying out your neighbor and fracking). So regulation should (1) give YOU property rights to sell (or say no, as in maggie's case).

    @Kurtz -- I think they pump down 4-5 tractor-trailers (need data). It's not the volume so much as where it goes in the ground and after..

  6. When people don't own the mineral rights to their properties and live over an aquifer being polluted, how does one "opt out" of fracking? Would neighbors have to chip in to buy off the natural gas drilling companies?

  7. @DW -- If that's how property rights are allocated, yes -- except when people own the right to clean water...

  8. David, I don’t understand the logic in taking fresh water, something which is vital for our survival, and intentionally contaminating it in order to extract fossil fuels. In the cause of hydro-fracking this water is lost to us.

  9. There seems to be a lot of emotion in the charges against fracking. It reminds me of the allegations of unintended acceleration in Toyotas - and Audi before them. (You would have had read the fine print deep in the second or third sections of newspapers to see that the NTSB could find no credible evidence of unintended acceleration, or that a major car magazine did a braking test from 70 mph with the accelerator floored and the braking distance increased by 16 feet.)

    I would want to know a lot more details before I would give any credibility to fire coming out of their faucets.

    I understand that water in a swimming pool also is loaded with poisonous chemicals (as is our drinking water - as chlorine is poisonous at high concentrations, and is a carcinogen - but I still want my drinking water disinfected with it).

    I also understand that much of the fracking occurs at depths that are in the thousands of feet, while drinking water comes from different acquifers that are much shallower. (I have not ever heard of a well for drinking water that is more than a couple of hundered feet deep.

    The shale in my area of the country acts as a acquatard, so the possibility of fracking water contaminating drinking water seems remote, unless it occurs when fracking water has been returned to the surface and it escapes from the container or reservoir.

    Bottom Line: I believe in the need for reguatory oversight, but I am skeptical of emotuional allegations.

  10. Contamination from fracking results when the well is not properly sealed off from the potable water aquifer and the fracking fluids (and gas) short circuit through the well annulus. It's rare but it happens. I'm also skeptical of the claims of flaming tap water - I would insist on knowing that it wasn't flammable prior to the fracking. But I generally agree that ownership of the aquifer is the solution here. The problem is created by an externality that results from inadequately defined property rights. Fix the property rights definition and you either end the contamination or compensate people for the loss of their property rights (in clean water).

  11. Unfortunately contamination doesn't recognize property boundaries. So what happens when the contamination that my neighbour was compensated for migrates beneath my property or into my well?

  12. I’ve spent significant time over the last few years on the issue of fracking since it’s one of the hottest issues in PA-NY (Marcellus Shale) region. You were asking for data on frack job water use requirements. For horizontal hydraulic fracturing in shale formations, it’s between 2 to 5 million gallons per well (see EPA scoping document). Chesapeake, one of the biggest natural gas outfits, pegs their average frack water use requirements at 4.5 million gallons (see second bullet under their heading).

    You were also correct to point out that it’s not the “relatively” small amount of water that is used in the process, but its injection, the flowback, and especially how the toxic produced water is disposed. Disposal is particularly problematic in states like PA (and NY) because of their geology. See the problems that PA has had with fracking wastewater disposal (NYT Drilling Down series: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/us/series/drilling_down/index.html)

    Below are a few sources:

    EPA Hydraulic Fracturing Research Study (scoping document for EPA’s comprehensive study; PDF): http://www.epa.gov/safewater/uic/pdfs/hfresearchstudyfs.pdf

    Chesapeake Energy:


    Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research: http://www.marcellus.psu.edu/index.php

    Cornell University

    Natural Gas Resource Center : http://cce.cornell.edu/EnergyClimateChange/NaturalGasDev/Pages/default.aspx
    NYS Water Resources Institute at Cornell University: http://wri.eas.cornell.edu/
    Hydraulic Fracturing and Horizontal Gas Well Drilling Reference List (PDF): http://wri.eas.cornell.edu/index_17_1018079719.pdf

    From the environmental advocacy side: http://www.earthworksaction.org/FracingDetails.cfm

    ProPublica’s continued investigative journalism on hydraulic fracturing:

    What is Hydraulic Fracturing? http://www.propublica.org/special/hydraulic-fracturing-national
    Hydraulic Fracturing series: http://www.propublica.org/series/buried-secrets-gas-drillings-environmental-threat
    “Forced Pooling: When Landowners Can’t Say No to Drilling” (pooling laws in some states preempt individual property rights): http://www.propublica.org/article/forced-pooling-when-landowners-cant-say-no-to-drilling


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